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Conviction Politician

Out of prison, with a new wife and infant son, Edwin Edwards, 86, hits the campaign trail again

Jul 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 43 • By MATT LABASH
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Above all, keep the masses entertained. Do that, and they’ll forgive many of your shortcomings, even if they occasionally switch you out for a goody-two-shoes reformer, an infatuation that never lasts long. As Uncle Earl once prophesied: “Someday, Louisiana is gonna get good government, and they ain’t gonna like it.” With a recent Justice Department study reporting Louisiana is still top-of-the-pile in corruption convictions over the last decade, it doesn’t look like that day’s dawning is an imminent threat.

But aside from being a savvy knife-fighter, compromise-forger, and able administrator who accomplished much, particularly in his first two terms in the ’70s before the state’s finances became tougher sledding (balancing budgets, streamlining bureaucracy, rewriting the state’s convoluted constitution), Edwards had a visceral appeal that seemed to spring from letting the electorate in on the joke. If many of us have lost faith in public servants, thinking of them as self-dealing grifters, Edwards’s black-humored one-liners (If we don’t get Dave Treen out of office, there won’t be anything left to steal) pulled back the curtain on the kabuki theater. As his bitter rival Duke once said, “He was devoid of principle, but at least he was honest about it.”

Which brings us back to the courthouse cafeteria in Baton Rouge, where I watched Edwards break the law, and served as an accomplice. Just weeks before the verdict came down, Judge Frank Polozola had taken away one of Edwards’s greatest weapons—his gift of gab. The judge was nicknamed The Ayatollah for his autocratic manner, yelling at reporters for tromping through courthouse flower beds, and screaming at defense lawyers that if they kept snickering they’d “be taken out of here in handcuffs. I don’t care if you hate my guts, you’re stuck with me!” The Ayatollah placed Edwards under a gag order, effectively barring him from doing interviews.

Ever willing to help someone shed the yoke of judicial tyranny, I’d convinced Edwards to allow me to shadow him, so long as I embargoed the piece until after the verdict. After all, what could The Ayatollah do then? Send him to jail? He was likely headed there anyway.

In the cafeteria, Edwards sat at a table, forking his eggs and grits, attempting to chat while prosecutors circled like sharks. As I was busily taking notes, he said, “I can’t be seen talking to you while you’re writing.” I folded my notebook, thinking that was the end of that session. But Edwards instead instructed me, “Drop it in your lap,” and we commenced.

Finally thinking that too dangerous—The Ayatollah’s walls had eyes—Edwards commanded, “Let’s go to the car.” We adjourned to the Durango of one of his adult daughters, the two of them sitting in the backseat, until one of them, Victoria, a former actress and showgirl, said, “Daddy, why don’t we take a ride?” As we tooled around Baton Rouge, Edwards chatting away in merry contempt of the gag order, we drove past the great big governor’s mansion. “That’s where I used to live,” Victoria chirped.

A few weeks later, after The Ayatollah had dismissed another juror during deliberations under mysterious circumstances (one who’d thought the government hadn’t made its case and who would’ve hung the jury had he been allowed to stay), 11 jurors came back with a guilty verdict, dinging Edwards on 17 counts of money-laundering, racketeering, conspiracy, and extortion.

Facing a 10-year sentence, Edwards would spend the better part of the next decade living in a big house of another sort.

I head down I-10 to Gonzales, about 25 miles south of Baton Rouge, where Edwards now lives in a golf course community with his third wife, Trina, whom he met when she started writing him in prison. In March, Edwards announced to the surprise of many that he was running for Congress in Louisiana’s 6th District, a seat being vacated by Republican Bill Cassidy, who is running for the Senate against Mary Landrieu. I am due to meet Edwin at his house, so we can head to a campaign fundraiser in Morgan City on the Cajun Coast. 

But that’s a bit of a trick. Louisiana’s been pounded with rain for the last 12 hours, taking on more water than it did during Katrina. Cow pastures now are duck ponds. The Do Right Full Gospel Church looks more like Noah’s Ark, its parking lot having turned into a swamp. I get within a few blocks of the house, but half his neighborhood is a water hazard. When the water smacks up to the door of my sad, rented Chevy Cruze, which is pushing its wake into low-lying neighbors’ living rooms, I give up the fight, call Edwards, and tell him the car’s not going to make it. He instructs me to head to a nearby grocery store, where he’ll pick me up in a higher-sitting truck.

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